CRANKY LADIES OF HISTORY: The Pirate Queen of the Connacht

Cranky Ladies logoWelcome to Women’s History Month 2015, which has the theme “Weaving the stories of women’s lives”, which fits perfectly with our Cranky Ladies of History anthology project! After 18 months of work, including our successful crowd-funding campaign in March last year, we are proudly releasing the anthology on March 8. To celebrate, our wonderful authors have supplied blog posts related to their Cranky Lady, and we are delighted to share them here during the month of March. 

To get your own copy of Cranky Ladies of History, you can buy from our website, order your favourite real world bookshop, or purchase at all the major online booksellers (in print and ebook). 

The Pirate Queen of the Connacht by Dirk Flinthart

Grace O’Malley: a woman so swashbuckling and amazing that she really ought to be fictitious, because her actual-factual self makes most of us look like timorous, lazy slugs.

Look – I like pirates, okay? I’ve liked pirates ever since I was old enough to read Treasure Island for myself. (My mum read it to me first, but she was going too slowly for me. I kidnapped the book and read it in a day.) I know that in reality, most pirates were (and are) amoral, bloodthirsty, violent thugs… but every now and again somebody like Grace O’Malley crops up.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR “Granuaile” AFTER THE CUT – check out the story in Cranky Ladies of History before you read!

Grace (Gráinne Ní Mháille – ah the lovely Irish spelling!) was born in 1530, likely in the vicinity of Clew Bay over in the west of Ireland in County Mayo. She was the daughter of the chief of the O’Malley clan, a fierce man known as Dubhdara, or “The Black Oak”. The O’Malleys were a sailing clan, and they controlled a significant chunk of the waterway over there in the west. While they styled themselves as traders and carriers, there was always a strong sideline in offering “protection” to people passing through their waters, and more than a little piracy when they thought they could get away with it.

Grace started young. The story goes that as a girl, she wanted to go on an expedition to Spain with dear old dad. Upon being told she couldn’t go ‘cos she was a girl and all that girly long hair would get caught in the ropes, she hacked her hair off short – which led to the nickname ‘Grainne Maol’, or “Bald Grace”. The Anglicised version is Granuaile, and it stayed with her throughout her long and interesting life.

It’s not easy to separate fact from fiction where Grace is concerned. Written records about her come mostly from the correspondence of the English nobles of the time, many of whom were rather unhappy with her. Her longtime arch-enemy Richard Bingham (appointed the boss of Connacht in the name of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I) wrote that she was “nurse to all rebellions in the province for this forty years.”

What we do know is enough. After her father died, Grace became leader of the O’Malley clan business. This was a bit unorthodox, but throughout her life Grace clove to the old Brehon law of Ireland, which treated women with much more equality than did the laws of the Christian churches or the English law. Certainly, nobody appeared to want to disagree with her when she took over.

At sixteen, she married the heir to the O’Flaherty clan, one Dónal “an Chogaidh” Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Donal of the Battle), also known as Donall an Cullagh, “the Cock”. (You know what? I’m not doing this Irish spelling thing any more. I don’t think I have enough consonants to spare…) Donal was a fighter, but not necessarily the smartest guy in the room. Grace had three kids with Donal, but after he died there was some disagreement between her and her two sons over her chunk of the inheritance, so she went back to home territory (taking with her a couple-hundred followers with all their goods and gear) and went into business for herself in a big way.

We know she was a fighter. Husband Donal died in a raid from the Joyce clan as they tried to take back a castle he’d taken from them. Grace’s defense of that same castle was so savage and fierce that the name was changed from “Cock’s Castle” to “Hen’s Castle”. She took a bit of a shine to the place, and at one point the English tried to winkle her out. The battle went on long enough that the defenders ran out of shot. The English thought all their Christmasses had come at once – until Grace had the roof of the castle melted down and replied to their attack with a withering fusillade. Once the English retreated, she sneaked a messenger out by a secret passage. Beacon fires were lit – and her fleet turned up, trouncing the English and ending the siege.

We know she was a lover. She took another husband after Donal, a man named Richard Bourke, also called Richard-An-Iarainn, or “Iron Dick”. She bore him a son, but after a period of time she holed up in her favourite of Richard’s castles and when he turned up she famously said: “Richard, I dismiss you.” This was a divorce under the Brehon law, and Grace kept the castle (which had nice views and a very useful sea-port attached, apparently.) Despite this, she and Richard kept their relationship going, and when he died the English regarded Grace as his widow.

She did like men, and she didn’t care who knew it which made her something of a scandal in those times. In a notorious event, her lover Hugh de Lacey (a lad fifteen years her junior whom she’d rescued from a shipwreck) was killed by members of the MacMahon clan. The story goes that Grace tracked the killers to an island and killed them by her own hand. Whether or not that’s true, she certainly burned the MacMahon boats and seized their castle at Doona with considerable bloodshed.

The stories about her are fabulous. She’s supposed to have given birth to her son (by Richard) aboard one of her boats, which was then attacked by slave-takers. The fight wasn’t going so well until Grace came up from below with a blunderbuss which she unloaded into the slavers, spearheading a counter-attack which drove them into the sea. Another story: refused traditional hospitality at Howth castle, she kidnapped the Lord of Howth’s son. The ransom? The Lord of the Castle was never to close his gates to anyone asking for hospitality, and an extra place was to be set at the table each evening. To this day, they set an extra place at the table in Howth Castle – although I suspect that if you turned up demanding hospitality they’d probably point you to the nearest B’n’B.

Her struggles against Richard Bingham went on for decades. At one point, her son (by Donal) Murrough took Bingham’s side against her. Her response? Grace burned his ships, stole his cattle and sacked his town. Tough love, yeah?

Times were changing, though. The English were forcing the clan leaders to submit, taking their lands from them and then regranting them, forcing them to accept English law. By 1593, Grace was in a bad position with her lover and at least one of her children imprisoned. She’d been writing to Queen Elizabeth for some time, apparently – but at this point I guess she figured enough was enough. In a move that took truly breathtaking self-confidence, Grace went to England seeking private, personal audience with the English queen.

She got it.

That boggles my mind. Pirate, “traitor”, “rebel”, and adherent to the vanishing laws and customs of a country that England viewed as a barbarous vassal territory, somehow Grace O’Malley got permission for a face-to-face chat with the Queen herself. It is recorded that she would not bow to Elizabeth, as she did not recognise her as Queen of Ireland. Unfortunately, there are no records of their discussion, as it was carried out more or less privately. (There were guards, yes. But Grace and Elizabeth conversed in Latin, the only language they shared with fluency.) And we know that after the meeting, Grace was permitted to return to Ireland and take up her “trade” once again, on the promise of “good behaviour.” Oh, and Richard Bingham was removed from office – for a time, at least.

In 1603, Grace O’Malley died. Exactly where and when isn’t certain. What is known is that even into her early seventies, she was still leading her ships, still taking part in raids and “protection”. (And what must her victims have thought, seeing a grey-haired woman commanding the attackers?)

And as for the story in “Cranky Ladies?” Well, apparently Grace was well known to young Philip Sidney. They spent much time in conversation, and he seemed to find her fascinating. Indeed, his letters home provide a significant part of the scant historical record on this remarkable woman. There must have been a first meeting between the two at some point. I like to think that the events of the story “Granuaile” would have suitably impressed the young poet and courtier with regard to the wonderfully fierce, courageous, cunning – and undoubtedly cranky – Grace O’Malley, Pirate Queen of the Connacht.

Want to know more? You could try these resources:

Chambers, Anne. Granuaile: Ireland’s pirate queen Grace O’Malley c. 1530–1603. Dublin: Wolfhound Press. ISBN 0-86327-913-9.

Cook, Judith (2004). Pirate Queen, the life of Grace O’Malley 1530–1603. Cork: Mercier Press. ISBN 1-85635-443-1.

Badass of the Week website.


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